The Real History of 'Saint Patrick': The Saint He Wasn't, the Man He Was

By Jeff Brazil 3-17-2009

It is said that everyone in the world is Irish today in honor of Saint Patrick. It would be a very worthwhile endeavor this year, given the cloud of dispiritedness that seems to have settled on us, if we would all honor him by striving to be more like him.

The lesser-known aspects of this remarkable slave-turned-social justice advocate are far more important and inspiring than any of the enchanting myths and legends we associate with him.

In actuality, Patrick wasn't officially ever anointed a saint, he wasn't a fan of green beer, and he wasn't even Irish.

The elements of Patrick's story and life unornamented by folk tale are that he was born somewhere in Roman Britain around 385 C.E. His name was Patricius. He came from a wealthy family. And it is not believed that he was particularly religious.

As a teenager, around the age of 16, he was abducted and taken to Ireland, where he was enslaved and forced to work long, hard days as a hillside shepherd until he escaped after about six years.

He made it back home, but at some point he felt a calling to join the priesthood and, further, believed he needed to return to Ireland. Ireland was not only the country of his enslavement and a place regarded by civilized societies of the day as primitive, but it was also a most perilous spot to choose to take up residence if one didn't have to. Incessant tribal warfare, human sacrifice, and pervasive enslavement marked Irish culture at the time. Those in Ireland who were inclined toward religious customs tended to favor naturalistic belief systems.

The mystery of why Patrick returned to Ireland and committed to spending the rest of his days there is addressed in his own hand in Confession, one of two pieces of writing validated as his. What is known about Patrick is, to a large degree, drawn from this strikingly honest autobiographical work and an emotional letter he penned to a slave trader, "Letter to Coroticus," as well as his enduring legacy in the form of the monasteries and parishes he founded and the humanitarian entities and causes that formed in his wake.

Although it's generally agreed that Patrick didn't write Confession until later in life when he was esteemed as the bishop of Ireland, he characterizes himself as a "simple" and "imperfect" man who had to overcome a fear born of his lack of formal education. He regarded himself as "unlearned" and even as somewhat of an outcast.

However, despite a life of difficulty, he expressed deep gratitude for "great favors in this world" and spoke of the "wonders" of life.

Patrick stood up for those who were looked down upon, including people who were impoverished; women, whom he afforded great dignity; and slaves, who, he said, "suffer the most."

At one point, he was captured again, probably by one of the many powerful warlords, and "fettered

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